The Worlds of Difference an “S” Can Make

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When it comes to revising old hymn texts, I am typically a curmudgeon.

I find excision as it is usually practiced a patronizing exercise in turning gorgeous old texts into meaningless drivel that avoids supposedly difficult or archaic words. Such excision includes but is not limited to: half-inclusivization of language and the removal of all “thees” and “thous” except those that are significant to the rhymes, both of which often result in a significant loss of immediacy, turning arresting moments of direct address into sterile and colorless statements of fact in inelegant verbosity.

The beautiful text of “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People,” for example, is habitually eviscerated in OCP and GIA resources, that is to say, in about 99% of all Catholic hymnals in regular use in the parishes. Since “Ye” is old-fashioned and not in common use among men on the street, the editors thought it appropriate to mangle the sense of the opening line, changing it to “Comfort, Comfort, O My People.” No longer is it a command from the Lord to the singer to “comfort…my people,” but now it is an address to the people themselves to “comfort,” which I suppose means either to comfort each other or, through some trickery, to “be comforted.” No longer is the listener to open prophetic lips and tell Jerusalem that God has covered “her sins.” Instead, the people themselves are to speak to Jerusalem, to “tell of all the sins” God covers.

A yet worse offense is found in some GIA editions containing “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” In these resources, the first verse is literally reduced to ungrammatical nonsense, the verb “descendeth” having been changed to the participle “descending” to avoid the antiquated “-eth” termination. The problem? “Descending” is not an equivalent form; the sentence (or at least the clause) becomes a fragment and demands resolution, which it never receives:

Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.

Becomes, Christ our God to earth descending, our full homage to demand.

I suppose a true cynic could add, Christ our God to earth‘s descending, our full homage to demand, but that would be, frankly, crass.

And what is the purpose of all this? It is simply to underscore the axiom that is reiterated in a zillion OCP ads for “Spirit and Song” (which I notice has recently reverted to standard capitalization and spacing) that “today’s Church” is unreachable by yesterday’s great hymns of faith, unless these hymns be thoroughly purged of all words not likely to be heard at the local sports bar. This is, of course, nonsense.

Today I taught the choir of my parish school “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It took me two seconds to explain that “thy” is an antique form of “your,” something of which they already must have had some idea thanks to the Our Father which, unlike the Angelus, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be, to my knowledge nobody has seriously contemplated purging of its archaisms. When I told them this, they replied, “Oh, cool,” and moved on.

Thus have I solved the problem for which some of the mightiest texts ever written have been brought low and made stupid. It is my strong suspicion that nearly every other pastoral musician in the world could do likewise, and that the Church’s sung prayer would be much richer for it, and much more expressive of deep continuity with our past.

There is, nonetheless, one form of revision to which I do not object, an updating of sense when the update reflects the even greater light and profounder depth with which we perceive the awesome mysteries of faith today than in the days in which the text was written.

I’ll give just one example.

My very favorite Christmas hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” is from a text written in the 4th Century by Aurelius Prudentius, a Roman lawyer turned ascetic and Christian hymnographer. The original text, “Corde natus ex parentis,” is a gorgeous reflection on the eternal begetting of Christ and His birth in time. Its finest translation into English was by the Anglican priest John Mason Neale in the 19th Century, as indeed were the finest translations of much of the rich patrimony of Latin hymnody.

But Neale  did not restrict his translation to the literal sense of the Latin words. He allowed himself minor alterations, updates, one of which I find particularly poignant.

The Latin original of the first two lines reads:

Corde natus ex Parentis,
Ante mundi exordium

Which literally translates, using nonetheless the rest of Neale’s renderings:

Of the Father’s love [lit. heart] begotten,
‘Ere the world began to be.

But at this point Neale allows himself to translate “mundi” not as “world,” the singular in which it is written, but rather as “worlds,” reflecting the appreciation that was just dawning in Neale’s time of the vastness of the cosmos beyond our solar system, and whose scope we now know to to be incomprehensibly wide and ancient.

This one little “s” takes the awesome perspective of Prudentius, who conceived the wonder of Christ’s eternity against a finite world which, as he saw it, we would consider quite young and quite small, and reminds us that we Christians who dwell in this century must now attempt to appreciate the same mystery, the same eternity, the same infinity, not against the cosmos as Prudentius saw it, but rather against a universe that seems almost endlessly vast and ancient to us.

This is added depth. This is an “important update.” Not insipid, but inspirational.

It’s a pity we waste so much more of our time on the other kind.

Sean Connolly

Sean Connolly

Sean is a teacher of History, Latin, and Choir at the high school level and parish music director. He keeps his domestic church in ordered disarray with an equally beleaguered and altogether lovely lady and his little daughter.

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